SANTA CLARA, Calif. - Junior Tyrone Conley (Burlington, Vt.) poured in a career-high 28 points, but the University of New Hampshire men's basketball team's furious comeback fell short as they dropped a 71-68 heartbreaking decision to Santa Clara University on Saturday afternoon at the Leavey Center.
The Wildcats fall to 5-6, but with one non-conference game remaining on their schedule (ESPN BracketBuster game Feb. 20) have assured themselves the program's best non-conference record since at least the 2003-04 season (5-7). A win against the still-to-be-determined opponent Feb. 20 would give the ‘Cats their best record since the 1994-95 team went 7-3 in the non-conference. The Broncos improved to 8-8.
After classmate Alvin Abreu (Lynn, Mass.) dropped 28 on Santa Clara in UNH's 58-54 win last season (Jan. 4) in Durham, Conley duplicated the feat and extended his double-digit scoring streak to a career-best six games on 9 of 16 shooting from the field and 4 of 4 shooting at the stripe. Conley, the America East Player of the Game, made a career-best six 3-pointers and filled the rest of the stat sheet with eight rebounds, four assists, a block and a steal in 36 minutes. Fellow junior Dane DiLiegro (Lexington, Mass.) came on strong in the second half and finished with 20 points on 9 of 12 shooting to go along with six boards, two assists and a block.
Robert Smith and Michael Santos led the Broncos with 17 and 15 points, respectively.
Trailing 65-58 with 53 seconds to play in the game, the Wildcats cut it to five when Conley was fouled attempting to put back an offensive rebound and sank both free throws. After a Santa Clara turnover, DiLiegro slipped ahead of the pack and received a feed from sophomore Russell Graham (Norristown, Pa.) before flushing a two-handed dunk that made it 65-62 with 51 seconds on the clock.
After Santos pushed the Broncos' lead back to five with a pair at the line, DiLiegro sank his seventh basket of the half to bring the score to 67-64 with 38 ticks left. After Santa Clara called a full timeout, Santos turned the ball over and Conley converted a layup on the other end to slice the UNH deficit to one with 33 seconds to play. Another SCU turnover kept the Wildcats alive and they capitalized as freshman Chandler Rhoads (Berryville, Va.) drove the lane and knocked down a shot from across his body in the paint to give the ‘Cats a 68-67 lead - their first since they were on top 6-3 with 18:16 remaining in the first half.
Raymond Cowels was fouled going to the hoop with four seconds left and made both at the line to give Santa Clara a one-point lead. After the Wildcats turned over the inbounds pass, they fouled Cowels again to send him to the stripe, where he made both to make it 71-68 with 1.4 seconds remaining. The ‘Cats had one final chance, but their three-quarters-court heave sailed high as time expired.
DiLiegro netted 15 of his 20 points on 7 of 8 shooting in the second half, while Conley added 12 and was 3-for-6 from the field.
Smith opened the game with a 3-pointer, but Conley came back with two 3's of his own before Smith answered with another to tie the game at six with 17:20 remaining. Santa Clara then ran off a 7-0 stretch that was capped by a Santos trey at 15:32. After the teams traded baskets, layups by Graham and Conley made it 15-12 before Conley knocked down a 3 to tie it at 17 with 11:14 on the clock.
On the next possession down, Troy Payne's tip-in sparked a 12-0 Bronco run that made it 29-17 with 5:45 left. A two-handed dunk from junior James Valladares (Kaufman, Texas) stopped the bleeding, and another Conley trifecta cut the UNH deficit to seven. Santa Clara led 33-25 when consecutive dunks by Conley and DiLiegro closed the scoring and cut the Bronco lead to 33-29 at the break.
Santos opened the second half with a layup before DiLiegro recorded a pair of field goals to make it 35-33. After a pair of Marc Trasolini free throws, DiLiegro and Santos traded baskets before senior Radar Onguetou (Yaounde, Cameroon) knocked down a 3 to cut it to 39-38 with 15:35 to play. UNH was still down one, 46-45, when Santa Clara scored six straight to open up a seven-point lead with 7:25 left.
Abreu sank a 3-pointer to make it 52-48, but the Broncos scored five more in a row and grabbed a nine-point advantage with 5:28 on the clock. The teams went back and forth over the next three minutes with DiLiegro and Conley each scoring five of the Wildcats' 10 points as they climbed to within seven at 65-58 with 2:39 remaining and set the stage for their feverish rally.
Graham tied his career high with seven assists and Onguetou recorded five points and eight boards.
Trasolini added 12 for the Broncos.
Santa Clara outshot UNH, 48.9 percent (22-45) to 40.6 percent (26-64), and also held an advantage at the line, shooting 23-for-27 while the Wildcats were 8-for-12. The ‘Cats only turned the ball over nine times and forced 17 Santa Clara turnovers and also outscored the Broncos in the paint, 34-32.
The Wildcats return to action Thursday, Jan. 7 at 7 p.m. when they play host to America East preseason favorite Boston University in their conference opener at Lundholm Gymnasium.